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Cutting Across the Prairie

Guest post from Transect 2016 participant Tyler Dunning

You arrive as expected, via shuttle from Bozeman, with an employee you met the last time you were on the Reserve, a scientist turned seasonal foreman—intelligent, young, seeking solitude far from home. Not uncommon. You and he cross paths, maybe, every six months. Enough, in Montana, to classify as friends. Your discussion in the car is that of two people in love with the same place, nuanced and specific. You turn at Big Timber, off the interstate to two-lane roads, talking the complexity of rancher relations; at Harlowton conversing the magnitude of the project at hand, to create the largest conservation area in the contiguous United States; through Lewistown saying this is the closest major town, though still small by most standards, in the region. Isolation is a currency all its own out here.

You arrive at the 2016 Transect, camp already established, the sun setting. You are alive, as if within a Clyde Aspevig painting, mixed grass and sagebrush, distant ranges—the Little Rockies, Bear Paw, Judith—the endless flat, a prairie horizon. All, as if oil on linen. It’s appropriate because Clyde is there, present, by the campfire, discussing government auctions for mineral rights, discussing desert microbes in Utah. The conversation is diverse. So is the crowd: board members and donors of the APR, musicians, ranchers, historians, photographers, philanthropists. All here to witness firsthand what they’ve worked so ardently for: a dream, an American Serengeti, a reserve in which the prairie can be restored, a place where herds of bison can once again roam the plains. Maybe wolves. Perhaps grizzlies.

You arrive during the latter half of the trip. The Transect, in total, is a ten-day journey starting on the newly acquired historic PN Ranch, then canoeing through the Upper Missouri Breaks, and now, mountain biking the CMR Wildlife Refuge. You don’t quite understand why you’ve been invited along, an unknown writer from an unknown town, but you relish the opportunity—amongst you are great conservationists of the era. Beneath you is harsh terrain, a biome underserved, a vision for what land protection can look like moving into the twenty-first century. Sweet Montana prairie.

On the bikes, you follow the water. The Missouri is the lifeblood of the trip, the lifeblood of the region, a river historically celebrated for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Their names keep coming up, excerpts from their writing revisited. Flocks that blacken the sky, one quotes of the now less-abundant sage grouse. Imagine what it would have been like to see bears here, digging up prairie dog towns, another muses. The plants demand attention, too, scenting the air, pollinating on the wind. Ellen, a specialist in range and forest sciences, points—needle-and-thread grass, fringed sagewort, prairie daisy. She’s in her element. Can’t be deterred. Others get more excited by logistics, the site of a future visitor center, the promise of a hut-to-hut camping system. All, though, dream of bison.

The trip ends four nights after you start, at the Enrico Education and Science Center. Bikes get racked. Bodies showered. And all at once you’re already nostalgic for the colony of tents, the chill of impending autumn, the fire everyone surrounded to exchange life stories, night sky as your witness. You miss the threat of rattlesnake. Of thunderheads looming. That’s what the prairie can do to you, make you long for the unreasonable. The uncomfortable. The unfathomable.

After dinner, you say goodbye to your new friends, all of whom made the journey just the same. You return home: prairie to foothills to mountains. You contemplate why more people don’t know about this place. Why more Montanans don’t. You contemplate. And then you realize why you were invited: to write, in meadowlark birdsong, all that you have seen. All that you now believe. To sing.